In Custody – A Book Review and a Late Giveaway Winner Announcement


I can get terribly flaky when it comes to the blog at times. I had a giveaway of this book sometime last month (as part of the literary giveaway bloghop), but I never actually got around to announcing the names of the winners here on my blog.

So here I am killing two birds with one stone – a book review and a winner announcement.

The winners of the literary giveaway bloghop are:

  • Rhonda Lomazow who wins a copy of In Custody by Anita Desai
  • And Zara Arshad who wins a copy of The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Congratulations on the wins. Both books are on their way to the winners. Thanks to everybody else for the participation, and sooo sorry that I missed the boat on the winner announcement 🙁 .

Some Info About the Book (and the Movie)

This book is one of those oldie but goodie books. First published in 1984, it got nominated for the Man Booker prize that year, but lost out to Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner.

A movie based on the book came out and enjoyed decent reviews. I checked out the trailer for the movie, and it looks really good – just like how I envisioned the movie would be after reading the book.

It’s a Merchant-Ivory production, with top Indian actors at the top of their game (or at least it looks like it from the trailer), and I must try to catch it sometime on TV. Not easy to do because Merchant-Ivory movies are rather anachronistic beasts these days in the time of 3-D and 4-D blockbusters. It was hard enough finding a trailer of this movie online.

Book Synopsis

The plot is very simple.

Essentially this book is about a war between languages. Urdu used to be the language of the Mughal courts. It is beautiful and poetic, but it is now on the decline after the English rule and the subsequent independence of India. Hindi is the language of the common people, and while it has elements borrowed from Urdu, it is definitely not as classical a language as Urdu. Hindi is now the ascendant language spoken everywhere in north India.

So when a humble Hindi school teacher gets an opportunity to interview a famous Urdu poet he is thrilled, nervous, and excited beyond all means. Deven – the teacher is an Urdu lover who is forced to teach Hindi in a school to support his family. The opportunity to meet a famous Urdu poet whom he admires tremendously is a fabulous one. However, things are not as straight-forward as they seem. The rest of the book chronicles how the interview series occurs and the impact it has on Deven’s life.

My Review

I just wasn’t prepared for how funny this book was going to be. The book starts out a little stiff and I felt very uncomfortable with the long rambling sentences all running into each other, and the overly descriptive prose. However, exactly three chapters in (I know because I took three days to read those three chapters and then zipped through the rest of the book), the writing takes a backseat, and the plot comes into play.

The humor in this book mostly comes from Deven’s bumbling attempts at the interview and his failures in getting a story out of the poet, and these were my favorite parts of the book. The humor is subtle but still slapstick and at places totally down-market, which is very unexpected in a book that is a part of Indian literary canon.

The humor and slapstick is very welcome though in a book that doesn’t have much of a story. Apart from humor, this book also has some wonderful characterizations. Both Deven – the teacher and Nur – the poet are written in such a humane manner – all their strengths and weaknesses are brought out in a very sympathetic and non-judgmental way. Humor can be a two-edged sword sometimes making a mockery of people but here its the situations that are made fun of, not the people.

That said, towards the end, once the interview is over, the book started to sag. There isn’t any dramatic impact in the story and it’s wrong to expect one, but I did want the story to go somewhere rather than just being an account of this period in Deven’s and Nur’s lives without there being any resolution. Unfortunately, my wish wasn’t granted or at least not in the way I wanted the story to end.

However, in spite of my disappointment with the story, I still liked the book a lot for the wonderful writing, the characterizations, and the humor.

Here’s an excerpt from the book to prove my point about the writing. I am not fond of poetry but reading this bit, even I felt a bit of a stir imagining the impact of Nur reading out his poems to Deven.

Seeing that line waver and break up and come together again upon the sheet of blue paper, Deven felt as if he were seeing all the straight lines and cramped alphabet of his small tight life wavering and dissolving and making way for a wave of freshness, motion, even kinesis.

In openness lay possibilities, the top of the wave of experience surging forward from a very great distance, but lifting and closing in and sounding loudly in his ear. What had happened to the hitherto entirely static and stagnant backwaters of his existence?

It was not the small scrawled note, not Siddiqui or Rai or anyone to do with the college who had caused this stir: it was Nur Nur’s poetry and Nur’s person; Nur who had caused this thrust, this rush that was sweeping up from outside and making him step forward to meet it, asking it to pour over his feet and mount up his legs to his waist and then his chest and finally carry him right away.

But you also get what I mean about the long run-on sentences in the book, right? The writing took a little getting adjusted to.

Last Thoughts

Overall, this book is a pleasant surprise. The beginning and the ends are a little rough but once the book gets into its stride, it is wonderful reading indeed. This is my first Anita Desai book, and I definitely plan to read more. Have you read any books written by Anita Desai? Which one would you recommend I read next?

Huge thanks to Penguin Random House for sending me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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  • I’m always fascinated by discussions of languages. Sounds interesting!

  • I hadn’t heard of this one. It sound interesting, but I’m worried I’d feel like nothing was really happening.

    • Nishita

      @disqus_EEI6Da4ah1:disqus Then this is not the book for you, plot-wise it’s fairly light.

  • I haven’t seen this book before, It sounds good!

    • Nishita

      @VickiSN:disqus It’s an older book and it reads like one too. Still I liked this very much. It was a refreshing change from some of my regular reads.

  • I’ve read an Anita Desai book a long time ago and loved it then. I wonder if my tastes have changed since, but I feel I will still enjoy her books. I need to check this one out.

    • Nishita

      @athirac:disqus Give it a try. It’s pretty unexpected, this one. I almost always equal Indian literary fiction with something sad, but this wasn’t.

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